The Middle East Channel

Syria’s Gulf Brigades

Syria’s Gulf Brigades

In the months after protests first erupted in Syria in 2011, a soft-eyed native of Deir al-Zour province did two things — one he is proud of and another he deeply regrets. As an expatriate living in Kuwait, he was energized by the thought of change back home; he spent his money, devoted his time, and rearranged his life around sending food, medicine, and supplies into suffering Syrian communities.

"We were not heroes [before], but placed in such unusual circumstances, we are somehow heroes," he said, recalling how he gathered bags of rice, pleaded with his friends for help, and negotiated with stingy drivers to lower the cost of driving the goods from Kuwait through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and into Syria.

But not long after the charity work began, he and fellow expats joined up with Kuwaiti donors, and a decision was made to help mold military brigades from the opposition. He shook his head and lowered his voice remembering. 

"The mistake was to create the armed groups," he said, almost in a whisper. "We cannot fight a professional army."

More than two years later, what was once a peaceful uprising in Syria is today a complicated civil war with not just two players but hundreds of armed groups and militias.

Central to that evolution was tiny Kuwait, where thousands of miles away, individuals and religious charities have raised money — possibly hundreds of millions of dollars — for Syria’s armed groups. Kuwaiti patrons helped create, shape, and support among the most extreme brigades fighting President Bashar al-Assad, including the Salafist Ahrar al-Sham and possibly al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, which often collaborates with the former.

The effect in Syria has been devastating; the Kuwait-based expat felt like he has watched things fall apart in slow motion. A cacophony of private donors each built their own rebel brigade. Dependent on independent funding from abroad, the militias grew separately. Gulf states piled in, adding their donations to one faction or another. As he put it simply: "The different money contributed to divide the armed groups."

Like the Syrian revolution itself, Kuwaiti involvement began out of hope. By the summer of 2011, three Arab regimes had been whisked out of office, and many expected Syria to be the same. Expats living in the Gulf heard stories of young men arrested, boys taken off the streets, protesters shot and wounded. They made lists of families in need and started to remit what charity they could. As the toll grew, businessmen who knew one another — often coming from the same part of Syria — connected and pooled their efforts.

They worked silently at first, for fear that Kuwaiti or Syrian authorities would target them or their beneficiaries. After living for years under dictatorship, even expats abroad mistrusted their colleagues’ allegiances. Would this man tell the Syrian Embassy what we’re doing — sending bread to the families of those in jail?

"Up until now, people fear each other — that they will go tell the embassy," another expatriate explained. "For a long time, the Syrian regime made us feel this way. It made our minds very bad."

By the fall of 2011, however, things in Syria had gotten worse. Putting aside their concerns, finally exposing their names, some in the expatriate community began to approach Kuwaiti charities and individuals who had reputations for fundraising. With their long donor lists and deep pockets, these new Kuwaiti benefactors could provide much stronger financial support.

But the new Kuwaiti donors also had ideas about what they wanted to see on the ground — an armed resistance to Assad.

One such charity was a Salafi group known as Turath, or the Revival of the Islamic Heritage Society (RIHS). Under sanction from the U.S. Department of Treasury, it has allegedly funded al Qaeda affiliates from Albania to Azerbaijan, and Pakistan to Cambodia.

"There was an implicit desire from [RIHS]" to create armed groups, the soft-eyed Syrian explained. "They wanted to shorten [the Syrian revolution] by creating defenders groups; they wanted to do more than just to feed them, they needed armed groups to guard from the regime."

Suddenly in meetings, the donations gathered were no longer divided between food, medicine, and cash. Now, it was partitioned between charity and military support. By early 2012, the fundraising took on a life of its own, broadcast on social media, touted in the mosque. Some donors began traveling to Syria personally. The buzzwords were no longer "food," "shelter," and "medicine," but arms, weapons, and support for the new Syrian mujahideen.

"Brigades and Jihadists are in dire need for aerial protection and anti-tank missiles," donor Hajjaj al-Ajmi tells his supporters in a video from Syria. These weapons "are in scarcity, more than they need qualitative weaponry which is assumed to having entered the country." Victory, he assures, will come from God.

As the brigades took shape, each armed group designated a Syrian representative in Kuwait to make the pitch for support. Like businessmen selling their emerging enterprise, they sat with Kuwaiti sheikhs for tea, arguing over who had more martyrs and fought harder battles with the regime. Many of these new armed groups then took on the ideological identity of their Kuwaiti backers, whether just to win financial support or out of true belief — a way to ascribe meaning to the atrocities they were witnessing.

In a matter of months, this unpredictable flow of financial support from a slew of individual fundraisers had helped split the Syrian opposition — as even some donors themselves began to see.

"This huge number of supporters has resulted in a serious problem: It made every brigade think that it doesn’t need the other brigades," said Jamaan Herbash, a former member of the Kuwaiti parliament (MP) who has also raised money for Free Syria Army-linked brigades. "For example, Liwa al-Tawhid doesn’t need Ahrar al-Sham, just as Ahrar al-Sham doesn’t need al-Nusra."

Nor did the rebels win quickly, as the donors had hoped. By 2013, their base of support in Kuwait began to shrink and become more extreme. Increasingly, the donors framed the conflict as an existential one between an Iran-supported Shiite regime and them, the Sunni world.

"Doesn’t the perseverance of the people of Syria make you feel obliged to do jihad against criminals?" one donor, a Salafi cleric named Shafi al-Ajmi, asked on Twitter last month. "Even if this goes on, join hands and regard the dealings of Iran and Hezbollah of the devil."

Like that first group of Syrians, Ajmi had a goal for the revolution — but a very different one. He has backed Ahrar Al Sham. He has engaged in poisonous sectarian rhetoric against minorities and some of his funding went to a rebel assault in the northern port city of Latakia that left hundreds of Shiite civilians dead.

"Be sure that the victory is close," he assured his supporters on Twitter in October. "The number of battles has increased in every province, and in every battle, there are at least six brigades, which hasn’t happened in the pas
t. Their number will be increasing soon."

Today, the same fear that permeated their initial work has returned for expats like the heartbroken Syrian man in Kuwait City. It’s not a fear of Kuwaiti authorities; it’s not a fear of the regime in Damascus. It’s a fear that extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra will prevail in controlling the opposition. It’s a fear that the first victims of this second tyranny will be them, the moderates, who only wanted to help. Like children of the revolution, they will be eaten first.

Elizabeth Dickinson is Gulf correspondent for The National, and former FP assistant managing editor. This article is the first of a series produced in cooperation with the Brookings Institution’s Project on U.S.-Islamic World Relations for the report — "Playing with Fire: Why Private Gulf Financing for Syria’s Extremist Rebels Risks Igniting Sectarian Conflict at Home."